January 13, 2020 | Raquel Farrell-Kirk, MS, ATR-BC
I kept the television off and focused on my day at home with my ten year old son. At first, I easily ignored the text updates I was receiving from friends about the rally in Washington DC, but as the situation escalated into an attack on the Capitol building, I could ignore the news no more. After a few frustrating minutes pressing buttons, I enlisted my son’s help to turn on the television and watched the violence unfold on my television screen. Over the next several minutes he laid on our rug by the fireplace happily doing his schoolwork, while I watched the news.
I’m not sure when I started talking back to the newscasters or exactly what I said, nor am I sure when my ten-year-old abandoned his book and started watching along. Though I couldn’t see his face from my vantage point, I soon noticed a different kind of stillness from him; so I turned off the news, convinced him to join me on the couch, and before I knew it he was crying in my arms. I comforted him as best I could. I acknowledged the painful truths he saw on display and plainly labeled all by himself (“but Mommy, when Biden is president all these people will still be angry”), and (somewhat guiltily) reassured him that we were safe and sound in our suburban home so many miles away.
The scene that we had just witnessed was at once unbelievable and so predictable that I had worriedly discussed its likelihood with friends and family more than once. As an American citizen who is also an immigrant from what some would dismissively and inaccurately label a “third world country”, it was not lost on me that only here in America had I ever witnessed such a scene. As a mom I considered how to ensure my children would bear witness to this ugliness that they might learn from it, how to do so without overwhelming them, and the privilege inherent in this thought process. As a therapist I wondered about the minds of the attackers—and worried about the impacts for those witnessing or experiencing the attacks. I had the dawning, and sickening, realization that I was watching trauma in the making.
I provided art therapy to community members in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, and remembering the way the impact of that event rippled out across the community motivated me to write this piece and share these strategies. These are tools my clients have found effective for managing stress, relieving tension and expressing sadness, anger and frustration. Treat this like a menu, trying things out until you find what you like. When you do, just as you might with a good meal, talk about it with those in your network so maybe they will try it too. Check in with the children in your life as well. Offer explanations and reassurances in age-appropriate language and model your own coping skills for them. You can even include them in the art and affirmation exercises below.
Deep breaths are a familiar tool, but did you know it’s important to focus on lengthening your exhale? Try starting with a long exhale rather than a big deep breath. Then, inhale for a count of 4, and exhale for a count of 6. You can follow up those long exhales with this 3-2-1 exercise that is one of my favorites to share with clients: Identify 3 things you can see right now, two things you can hear, and 1 thing you can touch. You can repeat this for as many rounds as it takes to feel calmer.
Affirmations are short, positive statements that can be repeated to remind us of an important value or idea. Try these sample affirmations below or write your own. To create your own affirmations, it’s most effective to word them in the present tense—as in, “I am”, rather than “I will”. Repeat the affirmations below, either out loud or in your mind, whenever you need to find calm or as part of a meditation practice.
- “I find and create moments of peace”
- “Others share in my worry and together we are working on solutions”
- “Resting and replenishing myself is necessary and important”
Making art can help release difficult emotions and provide a physical outlet for stress. Working with art materials is often soothing and may help with stress relief. Here are two examples of art-based activities that you might find helpful.
Not sure how to collect your thoughts?
Try making a special container for them. A simple mixture of glue and water will adhere tissue paper or magazine images to and old jar; and paint, markers and even wrapping paper can transform an empty box. Choose colors, words and images that are soothing, inspiring or empowering to decorate the exterior. Using pieces of paper small enough to fit in your chosen container, express your worries in words or images and drop them in, adding to it over time as you need to. While this won’t make your worries disappear, it can be a way to let go just enough to prevent you from feeling overwhelmed. Place it by your bed, desk, or front door, any area where you will see it and use it regularly.
This box is similar to the activity described above. I created it to represent and remind me of my coping skills and resources.
Did you know you could meditate with markers?
Choose a word that you would like to focus on—it could be Hope, Action, or any number of words that you might find helpful at this time. Using your favorite markers or other art supplies, write your word in the center of your paper and make a circle around it. Use as many or as few colors as you like. Keep adding layers of shapes, colors and designs in expanding circles around your word. As you do so, pay attention to how it feels to make those shapes, create without rushing, and slow your breathing. Think about the word at the center of your drawing and what it means to you, how it can help you, and how you can find, create or share more of it. It can be helpful to have one of your rings of circles be made up of your word repeated over and over, like a mantra that soothes and focuses you. Hang up your finished image somewhere you can see it so it serves as a reminder.
A meditative drawing I created with markers, similar to the activity described above.
While I hope these strategies become tried and true tools that you return to, they are not a substitute for working with a credentialed art therapist or other mental health professional. If you’re unsure if you need a therapist or not, talking to someone at a warmline or hotline can help you figure it out. Visit AATA’s Art Therapist Locator to find an art therapist near you.
Raquel Farrell-Kirk, MS, ATR-BC
Raquel has been an art therapist for twenty years and most recently facilitated a museum-based art therapy program developed for the cities of Coral Springs and Parkland in response to the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school shooting. She has also collaborated on public art projects, had her work featured on CNN and given numerous presentations on art therapy. In addition, Raquel’s many years as a homeschool mom and her experience working to support a wide range of students come together in her passion for guiding students and families through homeschooling. All these interests are reflected in her practice, Creative Energy Art Therapy- named for her desire to harness her creative energy and help others find theirs.